Nu History Podcast – 12 – Totalitarianism

In our latest episode Lilly and Alex are joined by Jackson from History with Jackson to talk about his specialization in Totalitarianism, and how to define the term in an ever changing world.

Find links to Jackson’s content and work here:

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Confucius: A Brief History of Master Kong

Today I am writing about a long overdue historical figure that I have admired for a long time: Confucius. The name itself is actually the latinisation of the title he was known by Kǒng Fūzǐ (which means something like Master Kong – Kong was his family name). His given name was Qiu. However, the Jesuit priests that got to China during the 16th century adapted it to their ears and languages, like it often happens with so many Asian names in Western culture.

I could write loads about him, but I will try to keep it to a brief overview, where I am mostly using the work of Michael Schuman as a reference. According to his research, there I a possibility that the great master may have been an illegitimate child. Confucius’s father, Kong He, die when the child was barely a couple of years old. Kong He was a lot older than Confucius mother, Yan Zhengzai, who was only a teenager at the time of the child’s birth on the 28th of September 551 BC. Schuman is of the idea that Zhengzai was shunned by the Kong family which is why Confucius was raised essentially in poverty. According to Burton Watson, it is evident from Confucius writing in his Analects that this experience of living a life of struggle and misery is what gave him a particular understanding and viewpoint of wealth and class. The child, perhaps guided by a higher purpose, or in an attempt to restore his family’s honour and glory, dedicated himself to the relentless study of history, literature ad philosophy.

Continue reading “Confucius: A Brief History of Master Kong”

Bling and Explosions: China & the Song Dynasty

Hello everyone, and sorry to have been a bit absent as of late. As many of you probably know I am desperately trying to finish my PhD so I don’t get a lot of time to write about anything other than Vikings, women, and fashion…yeah. However, I have been playing a lot of Total War: 3 Kingdoms, and as these things usually come about, my love for eastern cultures has resurfaced again. So, I decided to bring you something about one of the most fascinating periods of Chinese history: the Song Dynasty. Yes, I could be writing about epic China and Cao Cao and the Battle of the red Cliff instead, but that would be expected and therefore, boring. So, instead today we are going to talk about money and guns…:D

Why these two things? Well, because these were arguably some of the most important developments that the song contributed towards not just Chinese history, but the entire world. The Song succeeded in centralising power in China after a relatively turbulent period known as the 5 Dynasties and 10 kingdoms era. This was a series of upheavals and conflicts that followed the Tang dynasty which had primarily managed to keep Chinese civilization going thanks to their military prowess. This did not avoid their fall, though. So, after usurping power like any Asian drama would teach you was the norm in these parts of the world, The Song decided that invest their efforts in bureaucracy rather than the military. That said though, the Southern Song did make considerable improvement to their naval assets which gave them a solid backbone to stand against the Jin at the north. Their key pieces for this strategy were the paddle-wheel boats which became a quintessential part of their navy.

However, like I was saying, what really allowed the Song dynasty to excel was their economic development and scientific advancements. There are masses to talk about regarding this topic so I will attempt to give you a brief summary. The Song were arguably some of the most prosperous people in the medieval world. They had abundant trade thanks to their connections through the Yangze river which was well invested into joint stock companies that saw prosperity over this period. Kaifeng, the Northern song capital was a bustling city with merchants and artisans organised in guilds. According to Gang Deng Maritime trade, with its new naval developments did much for the growth of China allowing new connections that were not spoiled by the tartars and the Mongols such as south east Asia as well as east Africa. The iron industry was booming in this period too which was a greatly demanded resource, particularly with regards to the military. However, Rongxing Guo argues that one of the reasons behind the prosperity of the Song during the 11th century is due to the fact that there was a great shift in the government structure, removing regional military officials and replacing them with civilian scholars, which in return gave a lot of power back to the emperor. With this power and the influx of trade, the economy reached such stakes that the amount of minted copper skyrocketed to around 6 billion coins in 1085, which lead to the development of paper printed money. So, it is thanks to the Song Jiaozi as it was called that we use bank notes nowadays.

With all this money, opportunities came for the Song to develop other aspects of the society that perhaps have been a little neglected in previous times. What the Song decided to take away from their military output against the war tribes chipping at their frontiers, they decided to invest in technology to overcome their enemies. Alongside with the revolution that were the movable type printing innovations (not just for the sake of money) two other great technological advances came from the Song to change the world: the compass and firearms. Dieter Kuhn advises that, although the compass was perhaps not that revolutionary for the Chinese themselves, it had a huge impact in European societies and would eventually lead to the golden age of Western navigation and sea exploration. Gunpowder had been invented in China in the 9th century, but its application to the military had not been fully explored until he Song dynasty. The manuscript of 1044 known as Wujing Zongyao lists one of the first formulas for the use of gunpowder in the form of bombs for to be used as part of siege equipment. There were many other weapons that were developed during this time period, amongst which the flamethrower is one of my favourites. The Song repurpose the technology of Greek fire with a double piston hose gun to make this new weapon that became super useful and deadly.  But gunpowder was not the only thing that allowed the Song to have an advantage over their adversaries. The improvements done overall to their society stimulated learning and great engineering developments came from this particularly in terms of siege equipment. In the list of inventions that gave the Song this military prowess, Andrade includes the long-range catapults, new artillery crossbows and rapid-fire cartridges

But of course, this does not mean the world around the Song was not changing. They were partially forced to improve their military tactics due to the constant development of their warlike neighbours, particularly the Mongols and the states of Liao, Jin and XI Xia with which they had contested territories. So, when considering the success, at least I these terms, of this dynasty, one must not forget that the Far East was almost always in constant movement and that although the period of the Song is somewhat quieter in comparison to their predecessors, part of the reason behind this was because of the stalemate of forces between them and their rivals. This pushed for new methods, new techniques, and thus the Chinese states flourished to heights that the Europeans would not experience for a few hundred years.

This is my brief intro to the Song and their great history. If you are curious about the couple of sources I mention above, the details are below. Asian history is fascinated and seriously neglected in the west, so, if this inspires curiously, go to the library and get on with some learning 😉

Andrade – The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

Guo – An Introduction to the Chinese Economy: The Driving Forces Behind Modern Day

Kuhn – The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China

Lost Cities – Xanadu

Today I bring you the first instalment of my series of posts on “Lost Cities”. I would like to let you know right from the beginning that the term “lost city” is applied loosely here. As you will see throughout the different posts these are not always locations that are physically lost or not found. In many cases, I use this term to refer to places that used to stand tall. These were often centres of power, the core to long gone civilisations and empires. Therefore, as long as you keep that in mind, we are good to go. Why have I chosen these sites? Well, the answer is different for each of them. This is a fairly popular topic I guess in terms of public history – I am sure you have seen a documentary somewhere. But I think what draw me to look into these locations was not that populist approach, but my inner Indiana Jones looking for adventures that I am very unlikely to have in real life. Every archaeologist and history dreams (I Think…I Certainly Do!) of finding something forgotten and buried down into oblivion in the annals of our past. Now, I am in no position of doing great discoveries, so I only have left the stories of this places. And sometimes, a story is all you need…


Xanadu, actually named Shangdu means upper capital. This was in fact the summer capital of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan and the Yuan dynasty. It used to be home to 100.000 people until its destruction by an invading army of the Ming dynasty. The razing of Xanadu took place during the reign of the last Yuan Emperor and Khagan of the Mongol Empire: Toghon Temur in 1369. Sadly, and due to very extreme deterioration, all we have left are just the bases of the outline of the walls. What is left of these measures 2200 square metres, and the layout goes a bit like this. The walls and measurements I have just given you are part of the outer city, then they would have had an inner city held within the walls, with a palace which would have been around 550m in length. You know…Small! In any case, the current location of this site is actually in Zhenglan Banner (Mongolia).

I know this seems like a bit of a pessimistic note to start this post on, but I wanted you to feel the devastation from the beginning. And then, hopefully you will understand why Xanadu was such a symbol and why it had to be destroyed as an act of war – I am sure in any case that’s what the Ming forces thought to themselves in the process of trashing the place, anyway. So, what else do we know about Xanadu?  The city’s original name was Kaiping and was designed by the Chinese architect and adviser Liu Bingzhong or Liu Kan for the Yuan dynasty. The project started in 1252 and finished by 1256. Just a decade after the works were finished the famous Venetian Marco Polo visited the renown city. He actually called it Chandu, or Xandu; in fact, it seems the name change to Shangdu happened in 1264, which would explain the vocabulary used by Marco Polo. In the Travels of Marco Polo (Book 1, chapter 61 specifically for Xanadu, read the rest just for fun!), he goes at great length to explain his adventures around the old region of Cathay, and we find extensive information on Xanadu as an imperial city. He describes it as being an opulent, remarkable city. The palace, he says, is built with marble, gilded decorations all over, and then, he also mentions a second palace, also known as the Cane Palace where the Khan lived alongside in the main marbled residence… I think the evidence speak for themselves. In essence, Xanadu was a massive hub connecting trade for China in the north of “Cathay”. However, as the Mongol domains expanded, its location lost importance as the capital of the kingdom, and instead it was refashioned as an imperial city of high status by the mid 14th century.

Well, curiously enough, the city regained its former name after the Ming destroyed and occupied the area of Xanadu: they torched the remains of Liu’s creation and renamed it Kaiping. The site remained unoccupied and uncared for hundreds of years. Luckily the UNESCO decided to finally inscribe it in the list of World Heritage as of 2012. Like many sites that are abandoned and left to fend for themselves much destruction has been done to the archaeological record by the locals. In fact, it is reported notoriously that a lot of the stone work and marble of the city was repurposed for houses more recently in the town of Dolon Nor. As of today, not much other than the outline of the walls is left, though and effort for restoration and preservation of the site has been carried out since 2002.

Now, you will be thinking, what specifically pushed the Ming forces to destroy such a city, when it was no longer the capital? Granted its status was indeed very high and it was still an important symbol of the Yuan dynasty, but the treatment it received was pretty harsh. Perhaps it will start making more sense if I told you that, the down fall of Xanadu came as a result of the Red Turban Rebellion. The roots of the rebellion were many, although they mostly had to do with the economic and environmental problems link together caused by the constant flooding of the Yellow River, bouts of the Black Death and the very high expenses required to maintain such a vast empire. Not a good scenario. It also helps knowing that the Red Turban army was formed by Guo Zixing and his followers were members of the White Lotus society

…And before you start thinking we are suddenly in a Wuxia movie, I will tell you what that means. The White Lotus crew were essentially a political and religious movement, with basis in Dharmic religions as well as Persian Gnosticism. With their strict codes of conduct that resonated with the issues described earlier that the empire was facing, they quickly started becoming the champions of the injustices performed by the Mongols in their own lands, and as every rebellious group they did part take and a few demonstrations. The Mongol administration pick on this quickly and proceeded to ban them, and thus the White Lotus became a secret society of sorts. What I haven’t told you yet is that the vast majority of the members of this organisation were Han Chinese, therefore causing complications here not just in terms of religiosity but also ethnicity and cultural status. The Yuan dynasty saw a variety of religions amongst their ranks, including an increase in the number of followers of Islam in China, whilst the state never officially converted to the doctrine this caused some social dissent. Kublai Khan himself eventually established Tibetan Buddhism as the de facto state religion. Nonetheless, he particularly favoured the Sakya sect; a move that he did in part to have an advantage in his conquest of the Tibet area. Sadly, as a result of this favouritism the rest of religious movements in the Mongol empire lost importance, which caused once again social anxieties amongst the people, particularly the ordinary folk. This only contributed more to the escalation of things if we consider that during Mongol rule the “Han” or the previous Jin dynasty were all divided as a separate class in their feudal system and the decorum that they had received in previous rule was dismissed. So, in essence, the Han Chinese were super bitter. As the Red Turban Rebellion gained momentum, the White Lotus society became an incredibly favourable basis for their desire to overthrow the established system, and from here on, the story is pretty obvious to follow: all you need is the numbers and will to raise in arms, and soon your have a whole bloody war. To their great advantage, the mid 14th century saw a moment of great instability amongst the Mongols who were too busy fighting themselves over a very far stretch territory. So, by the time the Ming forces made it to Xanadu, little was left of the former glory of the empire this wonderful city had helped to build. Razed to the ground as is raided by Genghis reborn himself, Xanadu crumbled and set itself to sleep.

Who Was China’s Last Emperor?

When you think of China in the modern-day, you think of a communist/socialist state, a place of beauty with the Great Wall, and a country whose cuisine has spread worldwide. However there was a time when China did have its own emperor, and was not ran by either the Japanese or Mao.

Image of Henry Pu Yi

Henry Pu Yi was born on the 7th February 1906, and at the age of 2 years and 10 months was chosen by his predecessor Empress Dowager Cixi on her deathbed. Known as the Xuangong Emperor, his start to the reign did not go quite to plan: Puyi was taken from his family residence kicking and screaming by palace guards, leading to the eunuch needing to be sent to calm him down.

His father, Prince Chun became the Prince Regent, but could do little to stop the new Emperor from making a scene during his coronation. After developing a close relationship to his nurse, barely ever seeing his own biological mother, and saw her till the age of 8. However, getting all that power from such a young age, and being treated like a king had a negative affect on Puyi, who would feel distant from everyone around him, regularly having his eunuchs beaten for small things.

An Image of 3 Year old Puyi

As Emperor, he aimed to reform the Household Department, replacing the old aristocratic officers with outsiders, appointing Zheng Xiaoxu as the minister of the Household Department, who then hired Tong Jixu. Jixu was a former Air Force pilot, and as Chief of Staff was meant to clean up Puyi’s government. However the reforms did not go to plan, and Puyi was later forced out of the Forbidden City by Feng Yuxiang, who would later go onto be Vice Premier of the Republic of China.

Image of Feng Yuxiang

The Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which consisted many revolts and uprisings saw the end of the Chinese Imperial Dynasty, and Puyi’s reign. On the 12th February 1912,  a 6-year-old Puyi became the last Chinese Imperial Empire, marking the end of 2000 years of Imperial rule. Signed with the new Republic of China, he was able to retain his title, but would be treated like a foreign monarch, a similar agreement that Italy held with the pope. Puyi and his Imperia court were allowed to remain in the Northern half of the Forbidden City, as well as in the Summer Palace: all put in the Articles of Favourable treatment released on the 26th December 1914.

Although Puyi was restored in 1917 through warlord Zhang Xun, it was to only last from the 1st July to the 12th, a move which grew mass opposition across China, and would later lose Puyi his privileges put in place by the Articles of Favourable Treatment. In 1925, Puyi was moved to the Japanese Conession of Tianjin, spending time in the Zhang Garden and then the Garden of Serenity. Though he may have been pushed out of China, he was never too far away from politic, with discussions to reinstate him coming and going.

Image of Zhang Xun

After discussions with the ever-growing Japanese army Puyi was instated as a puppet ruler of Manchuko (1932-1945). In public, Puyi bared no sentiment towards the Japanese, but in private resented being made head of state/emperor. This is emphasised through his enthronement, where the Japanese wanted him to wear Manchuko-style uniform, but Puyi wanted to wear his traditional clothing. In the end, a compromise was met, seeing Puyi wear Western style uniform. From 1935-45, there were many assassination attempts on Puyi, including being stabbed in 1937 by a palace servant. All in all, his role as Emperor was limited, with Puyi’s wartime duties including sitting through Chinese-Language Shinto prayers.

After the war the Soviets sent Puyi to a sanatorium on the Soviet/Chinese border, and stayed there till the Communists took over China. Though Mao’s cultural revolution in 1966 looked to threaten Puyi, old age eventually caught up with him, and he died of Kidney cancer and heart disease in 1967 at the age of 61.

It’s easy to see why history forgot Puyi: unlike Tsar Nicholas II, he didn’t have much opportunity to mess up as badly, and control always seemed to be out of his hands. Given that he was on the throne at such a young age, it was hard for him to put his mark on history.

Mogou and the Qijia Culture

Today I am bringing you a very quick update on something I don’t tend to write a lot about -Asia- even though I’d love to learn more and more about it. Nevertheless, I found about this earlier on the year and I thought it was a pretty interesting discovery to share with you all and give you something to ponder about.

Recent excavations in the site of Mogou, north-west China, have revealed a prehistory cemetery from around 4000 years ago. The work on the site has unearthed over 300 tombs from 2008 to 2011. The original report was published in the Chinese Journal Wenwu, however an English translation is available in the most recent volume of Chinese Cultural Relics. The burials grounds present all types of goods accompanying the dead to the afterlife. Among the most abundant items, the archaeologists at Mogou have found finely craft pottery, with a peculiar ‘O’ pattern. In addition, some weapons and pieces of jewellery appears frequently. Moreover, they have also discovered bones and items used for what presumably would have been divination and other ways to predict the future. The settlement seems to coincide with the Qijia culture, which occupied the area of the upper Yellow River valley. Perhaps what has raised questions about this site and its function is the numerous burials which sometimes seem to include entire families. Some have ventured to sustain the idea that these burials in fact contain the remains of ritual sacrifices. Honghai believes that these could have been slaves or people who the Qijia conquered and then sacrificed, but this is not for certain.

About the Qijia culture we know that is regarded as one of the earlier Bronze Age cultures in China, and probably the world, inhabiting the land between 2400BC and 1900BC . Honghai states that archaeological evidence in other areas suggest they lived in modest settlements, where their houses would have been partly buried in the ground. These buildings would have been squared or rectangular. The first site belonging to these people, Qijiaping, was discovered by Johan Gunnar Anderson in 1923. The Qijia are also well-known for the early fabrication of bronze and copper mirrors, and their extensive use of horses as domestic animals. Some other interesting artefacts found in Qijia sites include the oldest noodles unearthed! This was reported in 2002 on the BBC news. The discovery constituted around 50cm of noodles, made with different techniques and materials than those we are used to nowadays. In fact, scientists believed this would have been made with millet grass, based on the evidence from Lajia. But despite the fact that this was a dominating culture and the multiple sites such as Mogou, Lajia, Huangniangniangtai or Dahezhuang, show their widespread settlements and domain, it seems that towards the 1900BC they suffered a sudden diminishing of numbers and they retreated from their lands in western China. What happened to the Qijia after that is still unclear. Some evidence from Lajia again suggest that the settlement may have been abandoned after the effects of a seemingly devastating earthquake and possible flooding, as reported in 2011 by Maolin Ye and Houyuan Lu.  Many experts support the theory that the Siwa culture took over them and developed this inheritance. Other theories suggest that the Qijia perhaps did not fully retreat from the west, but instead a branch of them, later known as the Kayue culture populated the area.

To be truthful, we do not know an awful lot about this culture, or many of these Bronze Age cultures as our main way of finding out about them is through archaeology. In addition, the same problem that I encounter with the Meso/Southamerican history occurs: the lack of materials in English. And unfortunately, in the Western world, is more common for someone to learn Spanish than Chinese. So I think we are missing the trick in here, and ignoring certain fields with a lot of potential and new grounds to explore…Just a thought.

The British Museum – through the Lens of a Camera pt. 2

This is a continuation of my blog update from yesterday. The images you will see here are taken my by myself-probably very clumsy, in my walk around the British Museum on the 31st August 2015.

Through Asia: Oriental Cultures in the British Museum

So here I have gone around the rooms regarding China, Korea, Japan, and the India. I have taken pictures of several deities, heavenly guardians and other protective spirits, following the pattern that I had accidentally promoted through my Assyrian images. The are a couple of things that are included such as the crown that do not quite fit in with the theme – but what cultural historian with an art background in depictions of power would I be if i neglected that gilded silver beauty… When fitting I have taken pictures of things that perhaps we have catered for in the blog this year-like the japanese picture below. So have a look and enjoy it.

Louhan: in glazed stoneware from the Hebei Province, China (907-1125 AD)
Louhan: in glazed stoneware from the Hebei Province, China (907-1125 AD).


(Another glazed stoneware Chinese figure)
(Another glazed stoneware Chinese figure).


Ming dinasty stoneware figure from judgement group - 16th Century
Ming dynasty stoneware figure from judgement group – 16th Century.


Ming dinasty stoneware figure from judgement group - 16th Century
Ming dynasty stoneware figure from judgement group – 16th Century.


"Painted pottery tomb guardian", North China, tang dynasty 7th-8th Century AD
“Painted pottery tomb guardian”, North China, tang dynasty 7th-8th Century AD.


Glazed pottery group from North China during the Tang dynasty, 8th Century AD
Glazed pottery group from North China during the Tang dynasty, 8th Century AD.


"Sandstone figure of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara" Northern Qi dynasty, AD 550-577
“Sandstone figure of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara” Northern Qi dynasty, AD 550-577.


Brahma, South India, Tamil Nadu AD 1001-1050
Brahma, South India, Tamil Nadu AD 1001-1050.


Gilt silver crown from the late Ming early Qing period (17th Century)
Gilt silver crown from the late Ming early Qing period (17th Century).


Shiva dakshinamurti, South India, Tamil Nadu, Chola dynasty, late 10th Century
Shiva dakshinamurti, South India, Tamil Nadu, Chola dynasty, late 10th Century.


"Ambika, the Jain Mother Goddess" Dhar, Paramara dynasty (CE 1084)
“Ambika, the Jain Mother Goddess” Dhar, Paramara dynasty (CE 1084).


Vahara, the boar god - Vishnu's incarnation 12th Century
Vahara, the boar god – Vishnu’s incarnation
12th Century.


"Shiva and Parvati", Orissa, 12-13th Century
“Shiva and Parvati”, Orissa, 12-13th Century.


"Amitabha Buddha" - the buddha of infinite light- statue in marble, found in the Hebei Province (China), from the Sui dynasty from AD 581-618.
“Amitabha Buddha” – the buddha of infinite light- statue in marble, found in the Hebei Province (China), from the Sui dynasty from AD 581-618.


"cloisonne enamel figure of a Tibetan Lama, seated on a lotus base" Qing dynasty, early 19th century
“cloisonne enamel figure of a Tibetan Lama, seated on a lotus base” Qing dynasty, early 19th century.


Statue of Kudara Kannon, from Japan. Copy from the original statue by the temple of Nara made for the British Museum in 1930. (the original statue is from the c.600 AD).
Statue of Kudara Kannon, from Japan. Copy from the original statue by the temple of Nara made for the British Museum in 1930. (The original statue is from the c.600 AD).


“Entertainers in Niwaka Festiva”l by Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753 – 31 October 1806). Colour print from 1793.

Depiction of the guardians of the Buddhist realm. Joseon period, Korea, 1796-1820.
Depiction of the guardians of the Buddhist realm. Joseon period, Korea, 1796-1820.


Polynesia & the Barkcloth

As we were walking by, my father made me aware that they had brought some items from Polynesia, including the Barkcloth for a little while to the BM…And obviously we had to go have a look! Here are some pics of the items I found most interesting. The masks are particularly awesome!


pa'u (woman's skirt) an example of barkcloth decorated with ula'ula, or red plant dyes
pa’u (woman’s skirt) an example of barkcloth from Hawaii decorated with ula’ula, or red plant dyes.


Kovave mask - worn by male initiates from the Elema people from the Gulf region of Papua New Guinea, and used to call out the spirits of the bush. Early 1880s - in barkcloth too!
Kovave mask – worn by male initiates from the Elema people from the Gulf region of Papua New Guinea, and used to call out the spirits of the bush. Early 1880s – in barkcloth too!


Kavat from the Baining people (New Britain, Papua New Guinea). Mask to attract the spirits of the forest that this people depended on for harvesting, hunting and war. 1970s.
Kavat from the Baining people (New Britain, Papua New Guinea). Mask to attract the spirits of the forest that this people depended on for harvesting, hunting and war. 1970s.


Barkcloth headdresses used by the warriors of Papua New Guinea
Barkcloth headdresses used by the warriors of Papua New Guinea.


Kua'ula - use for men's loincloth in the 1700s (Hawaii).
Kua’ula – use for men’s loincloth in the 1700s (Hawaii).


The invention of Gunpowder is truly one of the most remarkable throughout History. It was invented in China during the Tang Dynasty, circa 850 AD. It was a remarkable discovery as it was discovered by an unnamed Chinese alchemist who mixed seventy-five parts of saltpetre with fifteen parts of charcoal and ten parts sulphur. When the concoction was close to a lit flame it exploded. The unnamed inventor was practising alchemy- a medieval precursor for chemistry, whereby they attempted to find the elixir of life.

The origins of the ingredients are as follows- Charcoal is an impure form of carbon that contains some left over ash and sulphur is an element, like Charcoal had been known for many years preceding the invention of gunpowder. Saltpetre has been known to China as it can be found in some of the region’s soil. A Chinese Pharmacist described it as:

‘It is a ‘ground frost’, an efflorescence of the soil. It occurs among mountains and marshes, and in winter months it looks like frost on the ground. People sweep it up, collect it and dissolve it in water, after which they boil it to evaporate it. The crystals look like the pins of a hair-ornament. Good ones can be about half an inch (12.5mm) in length.’[1]


However when gunpowder was first developed it was not associated with weaponry as it could not be used as an effective explosive. It can however mimic an explosive when a large amount of saltpetre is added to the concoction. Through trial and error the Chinese were able to get enough information about the how gunpowder could be used as a weapon. A few hundred years after 900 AD gunpowder gradually became a part of weaponry. Firstly gunpowder was added to mixtures that were launched from trebuchets and catapults. What’s more the Chinese used them to light arrows in order to make the attack more effective in warfare. Secondly the Chinese advanced even further to use gunpowder as the main element to light up flamethrowers for battle in order to make the development of warfare safer as it avoided keeping the fluid under pressure as beforehand fire oil was used. The next stage of development saw the first attempt at utilising the explosive power of gunpowder, in other words a bomb was created using gunpowder. Eventually Chinese technicians were able to effectively create materials that would contain the explosion from gunpowder. This allowed the Chinese to make the hand-held gun and the canon. In the years after 969 gunpowder weapons were successfully used against enemies like Nun Thang.

As we move into the next century in 1040 AD there are many accounts of the Chinese using gunpowder whip arrows and even used animals to carry gunpowder. To do this warriors would apply the gunpowder around the necks of birds, hoping that they will settle down on to enemy territory. By the time the eleventh century arrived the Chinese developed gunpowder even further for weaponry. They began to use Fire lances. The Fire lance was a sophisticated use of weaponry, whereby soldiers would have a small iron fire-box attached to their belt that was lit up through a tube, ready to be fired at the enemy. It was a very versatile weapon as fire power could be used from the gunpowder and when it ran out the weapon could be used as a regular spear.  The design was particularly simple yet innovative as the Chinese used sixteen layers of paper that were rolled up and tied to cords at the end of each spear, allowing the flames to shoot out at a range of 3.6 metres.

The use of Fire-lances were pivotal for the military use of gunpowder as it more often than not caused enemies to be frightened due to the loud bang that gunpowder produced. This therefore inadvertently created psychological warfare as many men and horses would have been startled by it unlike other weapons such as swords and spears which could only frighten at close range. Gunpowder was able to startle the enemy when at further range.

In naval warfare the Chinese developed from the Fire-lances, ‘thunderclap bombs’. Thunderclap bombs proved to be very useful as it was able to treat gunpowder as a true explosive. The bombs when fired met the water and the noise that erupted mimicked thunder, whilst the sulphur in the gunpowder turned into flames. An example of this happening occurred in 1161 at the battle of Tshai-shih. The Chinese fleet was led by Yu Yun-Wen against the Jurchens, who attempted to seize the south of China. Fortunately the thunder bomb aided in the Chinese victory as the smoke emitted from the bomb blinded the men on board as well as the initial bomb causing many casualties.

After the Mongols were overthrown from the mid fourteenth century by the Ming Dynasty bomb development in China continued. Light-casing bombs were then established during this era and like its predecessors the bomb contained a much-needed addition in order to aid with warfare-a type of napalm. The ingredients to this concoction were unpleasant as when the bomb exploded iron spikes flew out with a poison contained in the gunpowder. This caused intense swelling and burns. Although it is unknown what the actual poison contained, however it can be assumed a poisonous plant might have been responsible.

When the Chinese used gunpowder with a high-saltpetre content the possibilities of gunpowder seemed more and more effective in warfare. Due to the high-saltpetre content the bomb needed metal casing as the explosions permitted more damage. Eventually from this large bombs could be made to defend territory. In 1250 mines were used by the Chinese. The first mine was not very effective as it detonated by a long fuse, thus making it highly unreliable. In 1300 however the Chinese managed to find a way to rectify the issue. They were able to create a hidden mechanism that allowed a weight to spin a wheel over flints that triggered the fuse when the enemy arrived. It was the fuse that the Chinese technicians figured out could connect to all the mines, allowing them to explode.

It was from these early Chinese designs that gunpowder was developed through circa 850 to the mid fourteenth century as affective weaponry for arrows, lances, bombs and mines. It was from these initial designs that the rocket and guns came about and can be argued that its origins can be traced back through to the days of alchemy- finding the elixir of life and quite ironically so it can be argued that gunpowder is the elixir of death? So before you mimic the famous words of the fifth of November rhyme please do also remember the origins of gunpowder and its use as a lethal weapon.

[1] Unknown author, ‘Gunpowder’ in Clive Ponting, ‘Gunpowder’ (London, 2005), 16.

Manchukuo: Master of Puppets

Forged by relentless Japanese military takeover on 15th September 1932, the new state of Manchukuo was not built to last. Born in the northeastern Chinese province of Manchuria, the state existed under elementary independence of its colonial master, which installed the puppet emperor Mr Henry Puyi. In response to the view of their ‘manifest destiny’ to expand and reform areas of their neighbouring Asian lands, Japan set its sights on Manchuria decades before the eventual takeover, believing the province to be within their natural sphere for expansion as Manchuria remained one of the few Chinese provinces to maintain its own dynastic independence from the ruling of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang.

Fulfilling Japan’s desire to secure raw materials and supplies for her own population alongside an exclusive market for her manufactured products, Manchukuo quickly became worth the risk. With fertile land and 34 million ready and willing workers, to improve its industrial output, the province’s largely unharvested gold, iron ore and coal resources attracted Japanese attention not only for her own uses, but also as a means of starving China of the necessary natural reserves to ultimately become an efficient rival machine. Alongside such natural potential, Manchukuo also satisfied a significant man-made Japanese requirement, as its vast lands would accommodate the ever-growing Japanese population that the mainland struggled to house, and also provide a secure homeland for the Japanese migrants already living in Manchuria. Japan’s imperial improvements for Manchukuo included a road building programme, which expected 4,000km of new routes by June 1934 and a merge of telegraph, telephone and radio services to easily and efficiently regulate communications within the state.

Following the Manchurian Incident of 1931 which was publicly displayed to Japanese audiences as a Chinese uprising, the Japanese felt a collective sense of superiority over the disrespectful Chinese people who would be tamed by Japan through its initial step to pacify Manchuria. Throughout the establishment of the new state, Japan’s view of an inferior and ill-equipped Chinese race frequently made itself known, most notably through propaganda warning the population of Manchukuo of the ‘barbarian people’ across the borders that were waiting to strike on the province if it were to lie dormant and vulnerable much longer without Japanese rule. The invasion frequently intended to broaden Japanese power within China with a view, albeit grand, to transforming the nation into a Japanese colony as a whole. The Japanese government stated that through Manchukuo, they would be saving China from decades of playing second fiddle to the Soviet Union, effectively being bullied into submission by the communist state, as well as effectively blocking Chiang Kai-shek from reforming north-east Asia. Acting as a mainland anchor for Japanese security, Manchukuo became Japan’s shield from the threats of Western imperialism, Soviet communism and consequently Chinese communism.

The primary aim of the creation of the state of Manchukuo was to utilise the existing Manchuria railroad, with Japanese power assumption over the system almost instantly as a method of bridging the gap between China and Japan’s colony of Korea while simultaneously opening opportunities for further expansion in the direction of Mongolia. Three decades prior to the establishment of Manchukuo, Japan was strategically working to forge the South Manchurian railroads to their advantage with the aim of eventual entire control. By 1933, Japan’s armies were forging the foundations of an ‘enduring economic and strategic organisation to meet the Empire’s needs’ through the control of Manchuria’s northbound rail links to transport the wealth of harvested natural resources on Chinese land to its desired locations. The new railroad management scheme in March 1933 promised to promote the well-being of the Japan-Manchukuo relationship for defence purposes only, alongside the efficient restructuring of the railways to eliminate futile Chinese opposition, ensuring the full repayment of reparations owed to Japanese interests, specifically the South Manchuria Railway. The railroads were organised more efficiently by Japan in the first two years of the takeover than it had ever been arranged under the previous Chang regime. In 1934, Japan made a promise to install 4,000km of new tracks in the coming decade as a means of transporting their troops to the Russian front with ease. The South Manchurian Railway established in 1935 was considered the ‘economic spearhead of Japan’s expansion in China’ and emphasised the great importance of haste in taking action to hold back communism in the Soviet Union and China.

Japan obtained a valuable lesson from the creation of Manchukuo in its initial attempt to economically control their new independent nation entirely through state capitalism and banning the zaibatsu from participating in growing its economy, however these were fundamental players in forging a grassroots economy, consequently stifling Manchukuo’s finances. Locating its birth in 1932 in the midst of global depression and the 5.9 billion yen cost of establishing Manchukuo between the years of 1932 and 1941, initial fears were expressed that Manchukuo would cause more harm than good. The Japanese intended on organising their new independent state in a way to achieve ‘a self-sufficient economic unit’ in comparison with its own, through an outright expression of a desire to belong in a world of total war through its imminent industrial prowess. Within its first year, Manchukuo defied expectations of failure by consistently making progress in the initial years, particularly in the direction of financial improvement with the establishment of its own national bank on June 15 1932 which distributed a new coin monetary system as opposed to the previous worthless notes. The Manchukuo yuan, based on the silver standard, restored monetary stability and was welcomed by farmers and merchants who were suffering under the Chang dynasty, receiving too little in payment for their high-priced soy beans. In the spring of 1933, Manchukuo launched an economic program to tie the loose ends created by the new state, preventing the monopolization of the plentiful natural resources in the region by any one class, controlling the state’s economic activities from above, and ensuring the employment of foreign skills and experience through encouraging foreign investments. Two concepts of economic governance were used in Manchukuo, with a combination of state-managed economic development using the neighbouring Soviet as a model and a self-sufficient production sphere or ‘bloc economy’. An unexpected but welcome side effect of the economic improvements was the reduction in poverty among natives which quelled anti-imperialist protest, opening Manchukuo to unquestioned Japanese rule.

Japan’s economic management of Manchukuo combined methods of state capitalism with national socialism, which merged ‘the advantages of public ownership and private management’, was considered a revolutionary approach that brought suggestions that Manchukuo marked a stage of Japanese colonialism where Japan tried and tested its economic theories in its new state, as Young compares it to a ‘laboratory’, and would then export the successful policies back home to be implemented. Japan’s imperial expansion into Chinese territory unintentionally brought a number of appealing promises to the Chinese people of Manchuria, specifically the offer of prosperity through such successful economic risks, which ‘means more to Chinese than political choice’, allowing Japan a free reign to complete control. Addressing the trading ‘Open Door’ in Manchukuo’s economic situation, Timperley’s contemporary article argues that ‘the door may be open but there are too many Japanese crowding the threshold for anybody else to be able to get even a look in’ as Japan expressed no desire to share Manchukuo’s wealth with foreign traders or even native Chinese. Through pushing aside Western competition with radically cheap prices that Britain and America could not possibly hope to rival, Japan assumed its rightful monopoly over its new state’s economic advancement. However, the speed at which Manchukuo succeeded economically brought suspicions of the legality of their actions, with goods smuggled into Manchukuo from Dairen avoiding export charges.

Japan’s subliminal control of the supposed central Manchukuo government blurred the meaning of independence for its new colony, with Japanese officials in power over the Manchukuo administration and Mr Henry Puyi and his ‘phantom cabinet’ answering to Japan at every turn. Manchukuo instantly declared itself independent of China, therefore snubbing the League of Nations designed to protect nations from such violations of national rights that Japan exceeded through its takeover. Manchukuo gradually became an efficient state through the effective mobilisation of the Japanese and Manchurian population in military, political, economic and cultural outputs, such as the Manchukuo Army, to evoke a sense of belonging and patriotism to the motherland Japan in the new state. The ‘revolution of 1932’ soon became the ‘restoration of 1932’, as outside views quickly realised the Japanese invasion had undoubtedly improved the region’s output in its first year. However, with all its successes, Manchukuo faced an unrelenting internal problem of banditry and the maintenance of order in a new state born out of the chaos and corruption of the previous Chang dynasty. While the independent state of Manchukuo was short-lived, arguments remain that the province of Manchuria was always independent, as China had never governed Manchuria and the Manchu dynasty never ruled China.

Manchukuo, the ‘child of conflict’ was handed over to European control following Japan’s crippling defeat at the close of the Second World War, and as a consequence suffered economic collapse and national distress, suggesting the Japanese occupation and governance significantly stabilised its Chinese colony, proving that Manchukuo was largely a risk worth taking.


‘As to Recognizing Manchukuo’, World Affairs (1932) 73-75.

‘Japan’s Railway Control in Manchuria’, Foreign Affairs, 12 (1934) 294.

Akagi, Roy H., ‘Japan and the Open Door in Manchukuo’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1933) 54-63.

Akagi, Roy H., ‘Future of American Trade with Manchukuo’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1940) 138-143.

Fenby, Jonathan, Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the China He Lost (London, 2003).

Harries, Meirion, Soldiers Of The Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army (New York, 1991).

Hunter, Janet E., The Emergence of Modern Japan: An Introductory History Since 1853 (New York, 1989). (Hunter, 1989).

Kushner, Barak, The Thought War: Japanese Imperial Propaganda (Honolulu, 2006). (Kushner, 2006).

Pyle, Kenneth B., The Making of Modern Japan (Lexington, 1978). (Pyle, 1978).

Timperley, H.J., ‘Japan in Manchukuo’, Foreign Affairs, 12 (1934) 295-305.

Young, Louise, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (California, 1999).

Formosa – The Beauty and the Beast

Uncrowded, untouched and uncivilised, Ilha Formosa was somewhat hurriedly entitled the ‘Beautiful Island’ by Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century, yet aboriginally named Taiwan by its Asian neighbours. The island may have seemed beautiful to seafarers accustomed to the Canton River, but historians document Formosa’s fertile landscape, native medicinal plants and abundant sulphur supplies with less vigour than their descriptions of its unwelcoming, grotesquely tattooed aborigines with no written language or civilised culture. Formosa’s history is steeped in tales of pirate-infested waters and widespread malaria, making it a No-Man’s Land rarely frequented by marauders, and this fearful image of Formosa only intensified as its Asian neighbours assumed their colonial powers over the island.

Formosa has swapped hands numerous times in its past, leaving its native tribes with a void of identity and in constant fear of attack and upheaval. The earliest known settlers on the island, the Longkius tribe, present since before Christ, were ousted in the sixth century by Malay invaders, the descendants of whom reside in the mountainous regions of the island to this day. The island remained unrecognised by its Asian neighbours for a thousand years following the Malays’ refusal to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in the seventh century. During this time, Formosa’s relations with China were fraught with sieges and tentative conflict, and the island consequently became a formidable pirate lair, a hive of underhand trade between the conflicted empires of Japan and China, until its eventual recognition by China in 1682.

In an attempt to prize the Pescadores isles from the Chinese grasp, the Dutch invasion of Asia began with the cession of Formosa in 1623. However this takeover was short-lived as a new generation of Chinese Ming loyalists reinstated their interest in the island and consequently gained control forty years later. Formosa’s largely ineffective and neglectful subjugation at China’s hands in the following two centuries robbed the island of its native peace, leaving the weaker native tribe Pepo-whan ‘barbarians of the plains’ to reside in the south and merge with their conquerors, while the wild Che-whan ‘savages’ evacuated north for the mountains. Law and order were lost, seemingly irretrievably, on the island as the Chinese invaders frequently fought amongst themselves and the natives, provoking the Chinese statement that on Formosa there was “every three years disorder, and every five years a rebellion”. The unrelenting social degradation left sailors in the surrounding waters fearful of becoming stranded on the island and facing certain death at the hands of the natives, as the period of 1840 to 1895 saw the losses of eighty ships and two thousand lives to the clutches of Formosa. The deaths of fifty-four Ryukyuan fishermen on Formosan waters in 1871 were blamed by the Japanese on the vicious aborigines in a move to gain the Ryukyu islands as a colony, and this consequently sparked an international drive to quell Formosa’s unrest. British, German and American efforts combined to calm the island, but it was a gentle yet firm Japanese expedition to the southern tribes in 1874 that began the process of re-civilisation, and consequently set Japanese colonial desires on Formosa.

Following the defeat of China in the 1894 Sino-Japanese war, Formosa was signed over to Japanese imperialism with the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, and as a result the island became an important component of the Japanese colonial machine in the years before the Second World War as Japan’s ‘first outright possession’. For a brief period, the island was declared independent as the Republic of Formosa and at first offered to Great Britain, but within six months the island was occupied by Japanese troops by October 1895. Once Japan gained the Formosan people’s trust, however, the assimilation of the Japanese colony began with the installation of the Japanese general Gentaro as Formosan governor. While Japan seemed contented with the occupation and order of the civilised areas of Formosa within six years of its takeover, its unrelenting desire for the mountains inhabited by the natives was meant only to harvest the landscape’s resources unopposed by the aborigines. Occupying troops took a military stance against the ‘savages’ at a high cost of lives on both sides, using wire fencing and Guard Lines to section off occupied territories, although this move largely failed due to the ingenuity of the tribesmen to overcome such restraints. Invading militia would frequently use technology such as aeroplanes and, on one recorded occasion, bombs to intimidate the aborigines into obedience.

With a restored infrastructure and a boosted economy through the improvement of tea, rice and sugar production, Japan brought the civilised areas of Formosa an element of prosperity eventually, but the benefits offered to the natives were purely incidental, as Japan utilised Formosa for the advancement of the Japanese mainland security. Kominka movements were introduced on the island to advance the island’s assimilation by effectively eradicating traces of the native culture and identity to be replaced by Japanese equivalents, the most notable being the official use of the Japanese language. As a consequence, Japanese rule largely restored law and order to the island by 1920 following the island’s turbulent piratical history, making Formosa its most prosperous colony by 1927, yet despite its successful transformation, it remained a distinctly remote island from the mainland as most of the island’s economic trade took place in Japan, and as such, the island lacked tourist appeal both for Japanese and European visitors.

At the point of Formosa’s return to Chinese hands due to Japan’s Second World War defeat in 1945, 8 million Han Chinese nationals had migrated to the independent provincial island, a figure which would later include the population of the Chinese nationalist party who had been forced to retreat to the island after communist victory in 1949. Manned by Chiang Kai-shek, Formosa remained a largely contented single-party state under the Kuomintang for forty years, making a defiant stand as a symbol of Chinese freedom in the twentieth century aside from the strictly governed mainland, taking its rightful place in the free world orbit.

Formosa’s turbulent history of piracy and subjugation transformed the once ‘beautiful island’ into a No-Man’s Land, becoming home to millions of Chinese immigrants from the mainland and consequently outnumbering the inhospitable natives. While at first glance Taiwan would seem an inconsequential addition to her Asian neighbours’ colonial collections, it was Taiwan’s bountiful resources and unindustrialised landscape, complete with the challenge of overcoming the savages in the mountains, that kept them coming back for more.


‘Formosa’, The Geographical Journal, 2 (1893) 441-443.
De Bunsen, E. H., ‘Formosa’, The Geographical Journal, 70 (1927) 266-285.
Hornbeck, Stanley K., ‘Formosa’, World Affairs, 118 (1955) 2.
Hunter, Janet E., The Emergence of Modern Japan: An Introductory History Since 1853 (New York, 1989).
Steere, J. B., ‘Formosa’, Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, 6 (1874) 302-334.